Dairy farmers and community enhance Ōtaki River and support Ōtaki College


Max Lutz at Ōtaki River walkway.

Ōtaki dairy farmer Max Lutz says he feels hugely rewarded by volunteer work at the heart of his local community. He works alongside family members, dairy farming neighbours and community members to give back in environmental and educational initiatives.

Max is a third-generation farmer and runs the family farm with brother Erwin and nephew Clay. Max says giving back is a family tradition – inspired by his father Carl, who received a Queen’s Service Medal in 2009 and still helps out on the farm in his 90s.

“My father showed me the value of community pulling together – collectively we’re so much stronger and can achieve big goals.”

Max and Carl got involved 30 years ago in the development of the Ōtaki River flood protection scheme with the Greater Wellington Regional Council and the wider community. A key goal was to ensure a scheme robust enough to protect the township from a one-in-100-year flood.

In 1999, the Friends of Ōtaki River was formed as an environmental care community group, to oversee the scheme’s implementation and monitor its success.

“We’re a group of community volunteers including river users, farmers and many others from all walks of life, who want to give back,” says Max.

So far, the group has planted about 130,000 trees and created their own nursery to grow local native seedlings and plants. Together, they plant about 7000 trees a year. They have also created a grove of ferns in the bush and an arboretum.

Max chairs the group of 400 volunteers and has done so for 19 years. He describes the group as care people for the river.

Once a week, he joins about 30 of the group’s members, volunteering to plant alongside the river to continually enhance it. At larger community planting days, about 60 community members volunteer to plant trees to stabilise the riverbanks and beautify the area.

“Now when we have floods, the water is contained and doesn’t enter neighbouring properties. It has been really rewarding as a dairy farmer to help protect our local community, working with our friends, neighbours and other community members. It’s part of the sector’s commitment to progressing a positive future for dairy farming and New Zealand,” says Max.

Max and Debbie Lutz on their Ōtaki dairy farm.

The group’s work extends far beyond planting – they have built a 10km walkway for the whole community, bridges, a viewing platform and picnic tables. Max says it’s important to ensure the public can access parts of the river that were previously inaccessible.

Every year the Friends of Ōtaki River, Greater Wellington Regional Council and local community do a walk-over alongside the river to inspect progress and assess further work.

“Friends of Ōtaki River has received funding from a range of organisations, businesses individuals and families over the years, including the council, Ministry for the Environment and Transpower,” says Max.

Businesses and charities sponsor school planting days, including dairy company Fonterra. About eight schools have been involved so far. “It’s great to see young people learning how rewarding it is to contribute to their community.”

In another initiative at the heart of his community, Max chairs the Ōtaki College Alumni Trust (XŌtaki), supporting students to reach their full potential. Former students including dairy farmers set up the trust.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than going to the college prizegiving every year to present scholarships and celebrate the students’ achievements,” says Max.

The trust’s fundraising supports subsidised dental care, counselling services and sustainable gardening lessons. “We’ve installed solar panels and the savings from lower power bills go into scholarships. We’ve upgraded the swimming pool, built a shade canopy and play areas and fund a programme teaching children about technology.”

Max says it’s extremely rewarding looking at the school’s hall of fame, which showcases former students making exceptional contributions to their communities.

“For me that’s what it’s all about – environmental and educational stewardship by families, schools, farmers, businesses, councils and communities pulling together for the greater good.”

Page last updated:

30 Oct 2023